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The Cyrenaics on Pleasure, Happiness, and Future-Concern

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The Cyrenaics assert that (1) particular pleasure is the highest good, and happiness is valued not for its own sake, but only for the sake of the particular pleasures that compose it; (2) we should not forego present pleasures for the sake of obtaining greater pleasure in the future. Their anti-eudaimonism and lack of future-concern do not follow from their hedonism. So why do they assert (1) and (2)? After reviewing and criticizing the proposals put forward by Annas, Irwin and Tsouna, I offer two possible reconstructions. In the first reconstruction, I explain claim (1) as follows: happiness has no value above and beyond the value of the particular pleasures that compose it. Also, there is no "structure" to happiness. The Cyrenaics are targeting the thesis that happiness involves having the activities of one's life forming an organized whole, the value of which cannot be reduced to the value of the experiences within that life. I explain claim (2) as follows: a maximally pleasant life is valuable, but the best way to achieve it is to concentrate heedlessly on the present. In the second reconstruction, the good is radically relativized to one's present preferences. The Cyrenaics assert that we desire some particular pleasure, e.g., the pleasure that results from having this drink now. Thus, our telos - which is based upon our desires - is this particular pleasure, not (generic) 'pleasure' or the maximization of pleasure over our lifetime. As our desires change, so does our telos. I conclude that the scanty texts we have do not allow us to decide conclusively between these reconstructions, but I give some reasons to support the second over the first.


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